Helter Shelter

First off, I’d like to guarantee that the title of this post will go down in history. It is clever pun smithing at its finest. No one has ever come up with that combination of words before. That being said, the field of artistic criticism is dead. Bury its ashes and puke on its grave.

Over the course of two nights at work (gotta pace myself), I watched the Rolling Stones documentary “Gimme Shelter”.  Evidentally this had a Criterion release. That signifies two important things.  First, as I’m on a personal mission to archive all the Criterion releases (legitimately) for my HTPC this movie has “Come To My Attention”.  To me, this reason is the most important reason for the film’s existence, and also the only reason I watched it. Honestly, I’ve heard of the film before, and had some friends with generally sound opinions in movies recommend it, but come on, the Stones? I was never really that hyped.

Aye mate, shit\'s gawn get rowdy!

Secondly, Criterion typically remasters and publishes “important films”. In the nerdosphere, this is sometimes called The Criterion Treatment. This is similar to the Anchor Bay Treatment, but not as wildly regarded. Why? I don’t know. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of films are worthy of this “treatment”. This is debatable I guess;it’s ends up being a lot like inflation. Sure most of these movies are more interesting then the dreck that hits the IMDB 250 during the always ridiculous period right after a popular film is released (Batman Forever). But damn, it’s getting kind of hard to automatically assume you’re going to enjoy a movie because it has the Criterion label.  Sure, the work in question will undoubtedly be important to film in some way. The acting will probably be good. Cinematography is going to lean towards well structured and engaging. There probably won’t be that many explosions, or bus chases.  But the Criterion label could one day become the equivalent of Peruvian currency: too much of a good thing.  I honestly doubt it, but I have to pretend to say something halfway interesting on here…

Aside: It’s a toss up which I’d rather watch, an Anchor Bay (eff Starz) or Criterion release. Nine times out of ten, Anchor Bay’s Evil Dead would win. The tenth time I’d find myself watching 7 Samurai and thinking “Holy shit, this is long… but somehow that’s ok”.

Anyway, I ended up watching this film. I was really tired. I turned off the lights at work to better view my laptop screen.  Shit was getting mystic and otherworldly.  A raven perched on my cubicle.

After the fact, a couple of things strike me. The Rolling Stones had some pretty interesting lyrics. I’m not much of a “classic rock” guy. During my formative years I listened to bleeps and bloops and the occasional post punk noisy caterwaul band. I grew up on electronica, wav files and porn with a .gl file extension. The Rolling Stones were something my dad would turn up to 11 in the mini-van and screech along to: Jumping Jack Flash in particular. Even though this film isn’t really about the Stones, I came away with a more then casual interest in their lyrics.  For instance, the opening lyrics to “Sympathy for the Devil”, the song which famously and tragically starts their set at Altamont:

Im a man of wealth and taste
Ive been around for a long, long year
Stole many a mans soul and faith
And I was round when jesus christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But whats puzzling you
Is the nature of my game
I stuck around st. petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

Now, that’s actually… lyrical. And smart. I mean, its not mind-bendingly obscure, or vague and existential. It’s straightforward and captures a theme with imagery that becomes metaphorical. It’s good Rock N Roll. It’s good songwriting. And it’s a lot better then most of what I remember Jim Morrison coming up with.

So the blessed event of this release is that they subtitled it. Without these subtitles I doubt I’d have been able to catch any of the lyrics. In general, I’m not strong with song lyrics anyway. I thought the chorus to Old McDonald went “G.I. G.I. Joe”. But even what my malformed, cauliflower ears couldn’t hear, my cataract covered, near blind eyes could see. Honestly, this left me begging the question, “what is this band doing singing to hippies at a race track in California?” These lyrics are about the Blues (capital B). Memphis row house girls grinding on daddy’s lap, that type of thing. Contrast this with the Jefferson Airplane’s performance earlier in the film and their singer’s peaceful, spaced-out calls for calm and you get a pretty good idea why Flower Power never really worked like Soul Power, Power to the People, or even Shania Twain did. The whole situation was absurd.

Which is where it all goes wrong. Somewhere on the web, I read a review that called “Gimme Shelter” one of the most compelling horror movies the author had seen. Before I viewed the film, this struck me as hyperbole. Afterwards, I absolutely agree. The film reaches an early climax when we finally get to Altamont. We see the promoters push the show through all it’s well chronicled difficulties. Hippies are compared to lemmings. Even though the concert was free, the smell of huge amounts of money and exploitation are drifting in the air. This event is doomed from the beginning, and a claustrophobic feeling of dread builds like a cold sweat.

During the show, masses of hippies writhe, undress, fuck, go bug-eyed and hallucinate. The editing intersperses scenes of calm with scenes of impeding violence. Watching the second half of this film is a stress test. It’s like being in a dark room waiting to be hit by a hammer. Images of stoned out youth partying their brains out take on sinister, primeval undertones. In a way, this is conservative propaganda at its most subversive.

I hadn’t slept in almost a day, and was tripping right along with the crowd. It was terrifying man! I’ve actually been to raves that are like this, and retrospectively it’s just absolutely crazy that every single event where more then 10 people are crowded together for more then two hours doesn’t end in unrelenting destruction. I guess that’s the point of this documentary and why Criterion picked it up for release.

I hated to do it, but I gave it an 8 out of 10 on IMDB. Perhaps the second most terrifying horror film starring hippies after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.


2 Responses to “Helter Shelter”

  1. April 24, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    My favorite Criterion treatment: Robocop. I think it still has some stuff the latest “deluxe edition” doesn’t.

  2. April 25, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    The only Criterion collection treatment I ever felt was worth it over just a plain old directors cut was their box set for Brazil. It contains the original movie as it should have been released and the movie as it was released… in sharp contrast to each other thematically.

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